Don't let facts get in the way of learning, warns top geographer

6th May 2011 at 01:00

Forcing students to memorise lists of facts could reduce school education from the "pursuit of knowledge" to simple "transmission of information", the president of the Geographical Association (GA) has claimed.

The comments from John Hopkin, a school improvement adviser for Birmingham City Council and a former teacher, fly in the face of remarks by education secretary Michael Gove.

Earlier this year, Mr Gove hit out at the lack of facts being taught in schools. "In the geography curriculum, the only country we mention is the UK - we don't mention a single other country, continent, river or city," he told the BBC.

But Dr Hopkin warned that this approach could lead to a "stripped-down", over-simplified version of geography.

He said the "core knowledge" education philosophy, which focuses on outlining the precise factual details that every child should learn, would not improve standards.

Speaking at the GA's annual conference in Guildford last month, Dr Hopkin said it would reduce the scope of geography in schools.

"Such a curriculum could risk the minimum becoming the maximum in some schools, with a stripped-down content that might be viewed as all the geography that pupils needed," he said. "It might also suggest a view of learning where transmission of information was pre-eminent, rather than the pursuit of knowledge."

His comments were not echoed throughout humanities education. Sean Lang, senior history lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and chair of the Better History Group, told The TES that memorising facts was an essential springboard for developing deeper knowledge of a subject.

"True understanding of the humanities subjects can only come from extensive factual knowledge," said Dr Lang. "However, there are those who fear and resist any attempt to extend pupils' knowledge. They speak of the 'transmission of random facts', 'filling empty vessels', 'simply cramming more facts' into children, and they reduce complex subject disciplines to mere depositories of information.

"The Better History Group strongly rejects these criticisms. We think they seriously underestimate young people's ability to absorb, make sense of and use extensive information."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Our national curriculum review will take a root-and-branch look at how we can put a clearer focus on content and the essential knowledge that all children should acquire."


Map of success

A #163;3.8 million, five-year project to promote the study of geography has come to an end.

The Action Plan for Geography was created to arrest the steady decline in the number of students taking the subject at GCSE and A-level. A survey of teachers in the final report on the project found that 75 per cent had seen A-level student numbers go up, with 46 per cent reporting increased numbers at GCSE.

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